Vermont Senate advances stripped-down economic development bill

Economic Indicators Associated Press

The Vermont Senate on Tuesday advanced a stripped-down economic development package, removing provisions to allow lower-wage companies to qualify for job-creation tax credits and to ease restrictions what some environmentalists have labeled strip development.

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"I like to say the glass is half full, but I think there are a couple of drops left in the glass at this point," Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland and chairman of the Senate committee that drafted the bill, said during Senate debate.

He later joked that the drops might be of fortified wine because the bill still contained provisions that could ease restrictions on the sale of ports and sherries.

He said he hoped that the House could fix some of the measure's shortcomings or that some of its earlier provisions could be attached to other legislation.

Mullin said economic growth in Vermont since the Great Recession has been concentrated around Burlington area while other parts of the state continued to stagnate.

The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee had proposed reducing the lowest wage a company could pay and still be eligible for tax credits under the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative from 160 percent of the state minimum wage — which currently works out to $14.64 per hour — to the $13 an hour a legislative study recently pegged as a "livable wage."

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Supporters argued the lower wage would make it easier for a broader range of companies to add jobs and take the tax credits, but the provision was removed from the bill and several others fell by the wayside amid senators' concerns about their impact on already tight state finances. Among them was proposed funds to help first-time homebuyers with down payments.

Cathy Davis, vice president of public affairs at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said a lack of affordable housing has hurt employers' ability to attract young workers to some parts of Vermont.

"We need to grow our young workforce and keep them here," she said.

Also removed from the bill were provisions designed to soften changes made last year to Vermont's Act 250 land-use development law.

The Lake Champlain Chamber's Katie Taylor said a guidance document issued in the fall by the state Natural Resources Board left many developers wary of proposing new projects for fear they would run afoul of new provisions restricting strip development. It could take courts five years to provide the needed interpretation of the law.

"How long do we want to hamper economic development?" she asked.

Kate McCarthy, sustainable communities program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said she was pleased the Senate decided not to weaken Act 250. The provision allows new construction in areas already marked by strip development, but is designed to prevent adding more.

"You can build as long as you're not contributing to strip development," she said.